I have a great garden this year. Digging in the dirt and watering plants and weeding brings me great peace. I’ve planted a peony bush that bore beautiful pink blossoms, scavenged wilted annuals from the discount cart at Lowes and coaxed them back to life. I’ve dug up free stepping stones from someone elses yard and brought them back to my own. I love being outside and creating something, obsessing over something and watching it grow.
A couple weeks ago, I got a vicious case of poison ivy, contracted while I was tearing out what seems like an endless crop of the stuff from my backyard. I was wearing gloves and jeans, but I wasn’t being very careful — since I had never gotten a rash from the stuff before, I assumed I wasn’t allergic to it. Dear reader, I am allergic to it. Very allergic to it. After a week of trying calamine lotion, Benadryl, Ivy-Dry spray, aloe vera, Solarcaine, baking soda, and cortisone cream, I finally went to the doctor. I left the office with three prescriptions, and two days later, I finally stopped itching uncontrollably.It’s been a rough year for my health so far. In February I had the flu, which took me out of commission for a week. In March, I cracked a rib when I tripped over a stone in my front yard, and it’s been a slow recovery. Now my arms and legs are full of scratches and blisters that just won’t go away. Let’s just say that 2014 hasn’t exactly been full of healthy.
I think that the accidents I’ve encountered have to do with an underlying distraction. Just like I kept telling myself I wasn’t allergic to poison ivy, I keep telling myself that it doesn’t bother me that I haven’t accomplished what I’d hoped this year. It was supposed to be such a productive eight months, now that the little one was in school all day! But that first draft of the memoir I had envisioned completing by now? Still stalled in its sixth chapter. The full-time, profitable freelance writing career? Still a distant possibility.
It’s not that I haven’t been busy: I walk my son to prekindergarten and pick him up every day, organize playdates, make sure that he practices the piano for 30 minutes on a daily basis, cook dinner every night, do the cleaning and grocery shopping, write articles and doing some freelance editing, bake cakes for birthday parties at the science museum, and cover the occasional shift at the school where I’ve been subbing. I keep telling myself that I’m not bothered by the fact I haven’t accomplished my goals, but like the poison ivy, it got me in the end.
So I’m admitting it. It bothers me tremendously that I’ve stopped blogging and have put writing on the back burner yet again, so I’m going to recommit myself to the work once again. And I’m allergic as hell to poison ivy, so I’m going to pay much closer attention to it next time I’m in the yard.
We are fortunate to have wonderful neighbors. The family who lives across the street from us have been a constant presence in Sacha’s daily life since he was born. They have two little girls who he loves with all his heart.
One of the first things he did as talking person was to shout out “Stella!” to the little girl. He would see her from the window, or hear her voice, or the car door slam, and it would send him skittering to the front door to try and make contact.
They are six and ten, which is not always good for a four year old. They sometimes exclude him, have made him cry several times, don’t always respond when he calls across the street. But for the most part, they are kind and friendly, they are like surrogate sisters to him. When they do come over, he is so thrilled that he talks at top volume the entire time.
This weekend he had the idea to write all the neighbors a letter. This is the letter he wrote to them (yes, I was the transcriptionist). It expresses, in three short sentences, all the love and longing he has toward them. “Why do you not say hi to me that often?” They say hi at least three times a day, sometimes more. But the times that they don’t say hi always breaks his heart a little. “That’s ok, I love you.” He accepts the hurt as part of life, because really, he loves them, the whole family.
He delivered the letter, and the next day the girls came over for at least 30 minutes.
So say what’s on your mind, and you might just get your heart’s desire.
Yesterday we were going to go to an outdoor music festival to celebrate the holiday. But it’s July in the South, which means it’s unbearably hot. It’s also been pouring rain every day for weeks, which means muddy pathways and saturated grass. We didn’t have any food in the house, and we would have had to bring a cooler, and there would have been lots of bugs, and I’m not sure how much 4 year olds actually like music festivals. But still, I wanted to go. I really did.
Instead, we went to a pool party inside a gated apartment complex. Later, we walked four blocks down from my house and saw the fireworks. It was simple and good. We barely spent any money, and everyone had a good time. The pool was sparkling clean, everyone was well behaved even though they were drinking beer, and the kids played a game of throwing boats into the pool and then retrieving them. There was a wooden gazebo where we ate our food, a communal grill surrounded by tall pines where we grilled the burgers, and a gravel path around the mandmade lake in case you wanted to take a run. The 24 hour supermarket was less than a mile away. It was all so easy.
Until now, I’ve always hated those kind of apartment complexes, where every unit looks the same and they are all painted grey or beige. I’ve always considered these swathes of mass-produced housing to be an aesthetic scourge, a symptom of the decline of beauty in contemporary America.But after we left the pool party, I found myself fantasizing about living there, in the Belmont Suites, or the Arden Apartments, or The Lodge at Southpoint. I even stopped and took a picture. Doesn’t it look relaxing and simple? It might be ugly, somebody else takes out the trash. Somebody else fixes the roof. You don’t have to drive to the YMCA to go swimming, you can just walk downstairs. There is a vending machine on site.
It’s the difference between doing things the hard way and doing them the easy way. I have always done things the hard way, every since I can remember. And I have always lived in houses and apartments with plenty of character, but few conveniences. My house is 100 years old and it’s made of wood, in a place where the humidity turns wood siding into the perfect home for termites and other critters.
You can do things the hard way, and maybe it’s more interesting, but maybe it’s not. Some people think taking risks is the key to a more fulfilling life, but I’m staring to wonder. Who’s to say that hitchhiking across Canada and back, or living in a hostel for three months in San Francisco, or quitting your job to stay home with your kid, or having a child by artificial insemination is more fulfilling than staying in your home town and getting pregnant by your high school sweetheart and teaching elementary school for twenty years? Maybe it’s more interesting, but who’s to say that being interesting is even worth it? Maybe it’s better to be boring and safe.
But after a lifetime of choosing to do things the hard way, I doubt that it’s even possible to learn how to do things the easy way.
Drink water, exercise every day, post to the blog.
Since we moved to this house six years ago, I’ve been laboring in the back yard, tearing out kudzu and thinning day lilies, moving boulders, digging holes. I cut down a dead eucalyptus tree with a hacksaw. But this year, without me weeding every day or spending hundreds of dollar, everything is growing. Sacha has a little hoe that he works with every day. We have pink hydrangeas and yellow daisies, purple coneflowers and hostas with delicate flowers. Everything is green and luscious, life abounds.
Two more months of summer, two more months until my baby goes to school. It feels like everything is up for grabs. The ground beneath my feet does not feel solid. I’m being forced to take the next step.
But for now, I am marveling at the way things grow, even when you don’t do that much.
Exercise every day. Drink enough water. Post to the blog.
Last week I turned 40. To mark the occasion, I took a trip with my sister. We made a pilgrimage to Elliot Lake, Ontario, the tiny town where I spent half my childhood. It’s the former uranium capital of the world but now it’s almost a ghost town. It’s not close to anything at all. It’s as remote as you get, without having to fly in. It took hours and hours to drive there, and there were hardly any other cars on the road. There is a stunning lake on the edge of town, exposed rock faces, fields of northern wildflowers. The air smelled like clover and wind, and although I hadn’t been there for over 30 years, it was as familiar to me as my own reflection.
We found the house where we used to live. This is a picture of the house. My parents had three children here. We were two hours away from the nearest McDonald’s or traffic light. They moved, then moved again. Now they live in a big house in a Southern Ontario town which has everything, and it’s only a 45 minute drive from the American border. The house on Bouck road is overrun with pets and junk. The people who live there wouldn’t answer the door when we knocked. Roman Avenue Public school, where I was a student for four years, is an abandoned building the playground overrun with purple loosestrife and devil’s paintbrushes.
I spent roughly half my childhood in the Canadian hinterland, and half in the nation’s capital. For half my adult life I’ve lived in big cities, the other half I have spent in small American towns. Half my thirties were spent as an ambitious academic, the other half as a stay-at-home mother.
You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but it doesn’t mean that you forget your past. Like most people, I haven’t really planned my life. I made a choice to move to America, but I’m kind of surprised that I am still here. I miss the north. And now that I’m 40, I feel like I should make plans. I’m not good at planning, so I’m starting small. Exercise every day. Drink enough water. Write on this blog. How you spend your days is how you spend your life. And a lot can change in thirty years.
This week and last I’ve been spending my mornings at McDonald’s. It’s a familiar place that is also foreign. It’s a place from my past. My mother would take me there for lunch when I was a teenager, picking me up in front of my high school and treating me to McChicken sandwiches and chocolate shakes, just the two of us. India and I stop there sometimes for french fries or ice cream when we are on long road trips. It is a place that offers comfort and familiarity to people who need it. A lot of them come alone.
It hasn’t been comforting to me this week though. It’s a place of last resort, the the only place close to my son’s camp that has wifi and coffee, so I’ve been logging three hours a day here. The other hour he’s at camp I spend running. I am not a runner, but I am trying to get in shape again after four years of not being in shape, and so I run.
At McDonald’s, a man sits alone and prays softly over his pancakes, a prayer that goes on and on. A mother hisses threats at her toddler, grabbing his arm with unnecessary force every time he stands up to look out the window. A small man with a nasal drawl recounts the details of his car accident to a friend: “I hit her car and I panicked, I thought, I gotta get out of here. But she got my plates, and they charged me with a hit and run.”
The people who sit in McDonald’s during the day are unemployed or retired or lonely. They take care of small children, or they need somewhere to go. A friend’s elderly mother used to take the bus to the downtown McDonalds in Seattle every day to have coffee. I knew a man from France who ate lunch at McDonald’s every single day he was in the States. It becomes a ritual. Yesterday a woman with sad eyes and fragile skin sat across from me and fell asleep over her meal. Today two men in baseball caps and florescent yellow vests sit next to each other, eating burgers and speaking in Spanish. Beside them is an elderly man wearing a bright pink polo shirt and baby blue cap, perched on a stool, swinging his feet like a child.
This is a picture of the McDonald’s we went to when we were in Barcelona. It’s across from the Sagrada Familia, It was a welcome oasis in a sea of too much olive oil and water that tasted like boiled eggs and hostility that was probably racism but could have just been bad manners. We went to McDonald’s in Paris, and the boy had a ham and cheese sandwich and I had a coca lite, and it was a relief to be sitting among regular people.
For years I hated McDonald’s. One time when my father visited me in Montreal, I complained I was hungry and he offered to buy me a pizza from McDonald’s. I got so offended I got out of the car and slammed the door. I thought that it offended my morals. But now I realize that my former hatred of McDonald’s and Walmart and going to Chuck E Cheese for kids birthday parties isn’t so much about ideals or calories or unfair labor practices. A lot of the time it was just about trying to set myself apart and not wanting to be an ordinary person.